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Morning Notes

Murder Case Advances After Court Ruling — “The Maryland man charged with brutally killing his lover’s ex-boyfriend laid in wait at his Arlington town house before strangling, shooting and stabbing the man to death, prosecutors said.” On Monday, an Arlington judge “ruled there is probable cause [Jitesh] Patel killed 40-year-old John Giandoni in March 2018.” [WTOP]

Food Safety Tips for the Holidays — Arlington’s health department has compiled a list of safety tips for those cooking holiday meals at home. Regarding turkey, which has been blamed for a recent salmonella outbreak, the department notes that “food handling errors and inadequate cooking are the most common problems that lead to poultry-associated food-borne disease outbreaks in the United States.” [Arlington County]

Car Safety Tips for the Holidays — “This Thanksgiving season, the Arlington County Police Department is partnering with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to share an important lifesaving reminder: whether you’re traveling across the country, or across the County, Buckle Up–Every Trip. Every Time.” [Arlington County]

Airport Tips for the Holidays — Per Reagan National Airport on Twitter: “Peak holiday travel continues today. Roadway delays are likely. To avoid congested roadways, use Metrorail. Or use Terminal Garages A, B or C for pick-up/drop-off and park for up to 60 minutes.” [Twitter]

Commuters Still Angry About Veterans Day Mess — Many who were stuck in traffic or waiting in long shuttle lines on Veterans Day are still not buying “Metro’s explanation that the day’s rain, and not Metro’s own planning, was the main culprit for what the agency acknowledged on Twitter was ‘a disastrous commute.'” [Washington Post]

Amazon News Roundup — A local think tank argues that “when put in the context of the Metro region’s history, the ‘Amazon effect’ is an unimpressive flare in the region’s chronic housing crisis.” One local urban planner thinks “Amazon choosing a second-tier city could have been more destructive.” Alexandria leaders say Amazon will be an “economic boom, not traffic nightmare.” Finally, there’s more information on the Amazon-fueled deals to build a second entrance to the new Potomac Yard Metro station and open a new Virginia Tech campus in Alexandria.

Flickr pool photo by Michael Coffman

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Arlington’s Top Prosecutor Won’t Seek Cash Bail for Most Misdemeanors, But Concerns Remain

Arlington’s top prosecutor now says she’ll no longer seek cash bail for people accused of most low-level misdemeanors, in a bid to avoid jailing people simply because they can’t afford to pay their bond after they’re charged with a crime.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, a Democrat, announced Thursday (Nov. 1) that her prosecutors will now only seek cash bonds in cases involving drug dealing or drunk driving. She added that her office will simply describe the facts of a defendant’s case and any prior criminal history, and leave it up to a judge to decide the circumstances of any pretrial release.

Stamos previously attracted some criticism on the issue of bail reform, after nine state lawmakers from around the area wrote to her in June to urge a wholesale overhaul of the county’s system. She dismissed that letter at the time as “misguided” and “silly,” arguing that the General Assembly needed to act to change state law before she could make substantial changes.

Stamos told ARLnow that she remains convinced that she “can’t reform bail statutes on my own,” and said this latest change was the result of her own research over the last two years or so, not any outside pressure.

“This is a much more complicated issue than simply saying, ‘Let’s do away with cash bail,'” Stamos said. “This has been a deliberative process, and I wanted to have a lot plans in place before doing anything.”

Stamos expects that the change will mainly apply to people accused of misdemeanors like disorderly conduct, trespassing or obstruction of justice. She says those charges often land on the county’s poorer residents, and that “results in people sitting in jail because they can’t afford $150 for a bond payment.” Instead, Stamos says it will now be solely up to judges to evaluate whether people charged with those sorts of offenses represent a flight risk or a danger to the community before setting a cash bond.

“The court has to make the decision anyway, and we’ll give the court the opportunity to understand what the facts are,” she said.

But the change still doesn’t sit well with Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-2nd District). Though she represents Prince William County in the legislature, she’s spent years as a public defender in Arlington, and has introduced a host of legislation to reform the state’s criminal justice system during her brief time in Richmond.

Foy notes that leaving bond decisions up to judges can leave the question of pretrial release subject to the same “implicit bias” that often lands low-income defendants of color in jail under the status quo. She’d much rather see Stamos move to the same system adopted by other states, which relies entirely on pretrial risk assessments to determine the conditions of a person’s release.

“For most misdemeanors, absent a glaring issue, those reports recommend releasing them,” Foy said. “I appreciate that she’s willing to have the conversation, and it’s a good start in the right direction. But I don’t see a hard and fast commitment being made here.”

Stamos says she’s reluctant to embrace more wholesale cash bail reforms, as she fears doing so would cripple a key funding source for the very staffers who monitor people once they’ve been released from jail. She points to New Jersey, in particular, as a state that’s made major cash bail reforms and run into such problems.

“If you don’t properly fund a robust pretrial service, you’ll have more people held without bond and who won’t get out at all,” Stamos said. “I can’t do away with cash bail by myself, because I can’t fund pretrial services. I have no ability to direct funds, and neither does the sheriff [who manages the county jail].”

Yet Foy believes Stamos is “conflating” the issues of pretrial services and cash bail reform. She argues that communities should indeed invest more money into such services, but she hasn’t seen nearly the same one-to-one relationship between ending cash bail and localities suddenly needing to hold people in jail without bond — after all, incarcerating people requires money as well.

Overall, however, Stamos is urging lawmakers like Foy to find a legislative fix and pass some sort of cash bail reform when the General Assembly reconvenes in a few months. Local Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District) said he’d certainly be willing to do so, in a statement released alongside Stamos’ announcement.

“Theo continues to be a leader in the criminal justice reform movement,” Hope wrote. “I fully support her efforts today and look forward to working with her and others on the issue of bail reform when we convene in Richmond.”

Foy says she fully plans to introduce more legislation on the topic this year, and hopes to work with people across the criminal justice system to build a bit more support than it garnered in her first session in Richmond this year. But she also urged prosecutors like Stamos not to be content with waiting on the slow advance of legislative progress when they can act now.

“Virginia is in a position to lead change on this,” Foy said. “But they don’t have to wait for us to change things legislatively. Commonwealth’s attorneys have best practices they can implement in their own offices, and they can reduce the impact on minorities and the indigent right now.”

Photo via Facebook

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Fmr. Arlington State Dept. Employee Sentenced on Child Porn Charges

An Alexandria man who pleaded guilty to child pornography charges was sentenced today to 26 years in federal prison.

Skydance MacMahon, who worked as a Digital Media Administrator for the State Department in Arlington, conspired with a Canadian woman to “produce over a thousand sexually explicit images and videos of minor children in Canada,” federal prosecutors said. As previously reported, he did so in part using a work-issued cell phone.

The Arlington County Police Department and Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office assisted in the case, as did Canadian authorities and various federal agencies.

More from the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia:

An Alexandria man was sentenced today to 26 years in prison for production of child pornography.

According to court documents, over at least a two year period, Skydance MacMahon, 45, conspired with an adult in Canada to produce over a thousand sexually explicit images and videos of minor children in Canada. These images and videos were produced at the direction of MacMahon using Skype and hidden cameras as well as overt recording. MacMahon distributed these image and video files to other users and consumers of child pornography by providing access to the files on his cloud storage services and also by directly sending the files to other users. In addition to the child pornography images and videos MacMahon himself created, he also received and possessed thousands of images and videos of child pornography.

During the time he committed these offenses, MacMahon was a Digital Media Administrator at the Foreign Services Institute of the U.S. Department of State in Arlington.

This case was brought as part of Project Safe Childhood, a nationwide initiative launched in May 2006 by the Department of Justice to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse. Led by U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS), Project Safe Childhood marshals federal, state and local resources to better locate, apprehend and prosecute individuals who exploit children via the Internet, as well as to identify and rescue victims. For more information about Project Safe Childhood, please visit www.justice.gov/psc.

G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Nancy McNamara, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, and Steve A. Linick, Inspector General for the Department of State, made the announcement after sentencing by U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga. Assistant U.S. Attorney Whitney Dougherty Russell prosecuted the case.

Significant assistance was provided by the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office, the U.S. Department of State Office of Inspector General’s Cyber Forensic Division, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Halifax Regional Police, Crown Prosecution Service, Special Prosecution Section, the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service, the Arlington County Police Department, and the Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

Flickr photo by Joe Gratz

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State Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Highlander Motel Case, Clearing the Way for Redevelopment

The owner of the Highlander Motel in Virginia Square has secured a key legal victory, potentially allowing the property’s redevelopment to move ahead, and now he’s vowing retribution against county officials for tying up the process in court for years.

The Virginia Supreme Court declined last Wednesday (Oct. 10) to consider an appeal from the county in a case challenging local businessman Bill Bayne’s plans to replace the aging motel with a CVS Pharmacy. That means Bayne should be able to push forward with the redevelopment of the hotel, located at 3336 Wilson Blvd, after a judge twice tossed out legal action from county officials seeking to block those plans.

Bayne, who also owns the Crystal City Restaurant and co-owns the Crystal City Sports Pub, believes the county’s challenges were simply an attempt to scuttle his latest business venture, all at the cost of thousands in taxpayer dollars. With this latest legal victory in hand, he fully plans to renew talks to knock down the 55-year-old hotel in favor of the pharmacy, and then take the county back to court for his trouble.

“It’s not right what they’ve done, and it’s not right for them to do it to anybody,” Bayne told ARLnow. “But there’ll be a day of reckoning in court and a judge will decide if it’s right.”

County attorney Steve MacIsaac did not respond to requests for comment on the court’s ruling. But, in past legal filings and hearings, county lawyers have portrayed Bayne’s plans as not only a violation of some complex zoning laws, but also a “noxious use” of a property that sits quite close to some residential neighborhoods.

Even still, judges have twice disagreed with the county’s arguments in the case, and the Supreme Court ruled that there was “no reversible error” in those decisions for the high court to consider. Bayne believes the court declined to take up the matter for a simple reason: “Would you want to hear a joke case?”

“Why do you have to get told you’re wrong three different times?” Bayne said.

Bayne says his original plans for the pharmacy, as first sketched out roughly three years ago, would’ve netted him close to $45 million over the term of the 50-year lease for the property (which has been in Bayne’s family since at least 1985, county records show).

He hopes to revive a similar deal with CVS now that the court battles seem to be over, but he can’t be sure that the company will look kindly on the delay.

But with the legal wrangling over the years, Bayne expects he’s lost as much as $1.8 million while the project has stalled. He fully plans to recoup those losses by taking the county to court, and he says he’s contemplating legal action against everyone from the county zoning administrator to County Manager Mark Schwartz to current and former County Board members.

“It’s not OK to do this to somebody,” Bayne said. “There will be ramifications for this.”

Bayne says he’s not quite sure on the timetable for any potential litigation just yet. County court records don’t reflect any evidence that Bayne or one of his companies has filed suit against county officials, as of Tuesday morning.

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Man Shot by Arlington Police Appears to Have Struck a Plea Deal

An Arlington man shot by police after he allegedly tried to ram officers with his van appears to have struck a deal with county prosecutors to avoid a trial.

Court records show that Steven Best now has a Nov. 5 plea hearing set for Arlington County Circuit Court. He’s facing a single charge of the attempted malicious wounding of a law enforcement officer, after a grand jury agreed there was enough evidence to indict him on Sept. 24.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, the county’s top prosecutor, declined to comment on the contents of Best’s plea deal, other than to confirm that there is indeed a hearing scheduled for next month. Best’s family did also not reply to a request for comment, and neither the prosecution nor the defense has filed any paperwork involving the plea as of yet.

Police claimed that Best tried to flee the scene of a May 3 traffic stop just off Columbia Pike, near the intersection of 12th Street S. and S. Edgewood Street, nearly striking Officer Ryan Reese in the process. Police then opened fire on Best, and his lawyers say he was shot half a dozen times as he drove away.

Yet Best has steadfastly maintained his innocence since the incident, arguing in court filings and an online fundraiser organized by his family that he was trying to surrender when police began shooting at him.

He claimed that he only drove away out of confusion and fear for his life, and didn’t mean to attack the officers involved. Police originally charged with two counts of trying to assault the officers, subsequently reduced to one after a review by prosecutors.

Best’s attorneys claimed in court documents that surveillance video from nearby businesses would provide “exculpatory evidence” to bolster his claims of innocence, and they demanded access to video footage to help prove his case.

Court filings don’t make it clear whether they were able to successfully secure that footage, or what it showed.

Photo via GoFundMe

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Morning Notes

Judge Dismisses Dewey Horse Punch Case — A man who was accused of punching a police horse in Dewey Beach is now trying to clear his name after the case was dismissed. Surveillance video reportedly exonerated the man, who might not actually be from Arlington as originally reported. [Cape Gazette]

Rosslyn Transportation Meeting Tonight — “Join Arlington County and the Rosslyn BID to provide feedback at this public meeting that will focus on the Core of Rosslyn Transportation Study. This study will examine the feasibility and potential impacts of permanent changes to the street network in the core of Rosslyn, with the goals of improving safety and accessibility for all users, including those walking, biking, using transit and driving.” [Rosslyn]

Another Commute Alternative: Running — As Metro continues on a downward ridership spiral, some are finding running to be an attractive commuting alternative, providing exercise and fresh air while eliminating costs and unpredictable delays. [Runners World]

Angels of the Battlefield Gala Tonight — The Armed Services YMCA will present its annual Angels of the Battlefield awards tonight during a gala at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City. Among the 2018 recipients of the prestigious awards are Senior Airman Linda Wilson, who helped save lives during the Las Vegas mass shooting last year. [ASYMCA, Air Force Times]

New Film Fest Coming to Clarendon — “Georgetown’s Halcyon and Arlington’s Clarendon Ballroom will be the venues for a new film festival – Flicks4Change — that links the entertainment world with charitable activism. The film festival first started in Los Angeles, expanded to Australia and now comes to the DC area.” [Georgetown Dish]

Nearby: Pete’s Apizza Closes in Md. — Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza has closed its Silver Spring location. The D.C. and Clarendon locations remain open. [Bethesda Beat]

Flickr pool photo by Kevin Wolf

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Man Shot by Arlington Police Claims Officers Opened Fire as He Tried to Surrender

An Arlington man shot by police claims officers aren’t telling the whole story about the incident that led up to the shooting — and he expects video evidence will help him prove his case in court.

County police shot Steven Best several times on May 3 on a street just off Columbia Pike, claiming he tried to flee a traffic stop and nearly hit officers with his van in the process.

But, in a series of court filings, Best’s attorneys allege that he was trying to surrender when police opened fire on him. They claim he was confused and trying to protect himself as he drove away from the scene, rather than attempting to harm any of the officers involved.

Best’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comments on those claims, but court documents show they’ve repeatedly sought access to video footage from nearby businesses, arguing that it will provide Best with crucial “exculpatory evidence.”

“He’ll be innocent of these charges when everything comes out,” Heather Rose, Best’s sister, told ARLnow. Best and the rest of his family otherwise declined to comment on the case, but they’ve frequently proclaimed his innocence in an online fundraiser to pay for Best’s legal and medical expenses.

County police spokeswoman Ashley Savage said she “can’t speak” to Best’s claims of innocence, and Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos declined to discuss them as well.

In the police department’s account of the shooting, officers tried to pull over Best near the intersection of 12th Street S. and S. Edgewood Street, as they were searching for the passenger in Best’s car: 40-year-old Jessica Lary of Annandale, who was wanted on a warrant for violating her parole.

Police say officers approached the vehicle on foot, but that Best “ignored their verbal commands and struck police vehicles in an attempt to flee the scene.” Two officers then opened fire on Best as he drove down 12th Street S., striking a parked car in the process.

Police say Lary and Best abandoned the vehicle near the intersection of 13th Street S. and S. Irving Street, where they were subsequently arrested. Savage added that neither Best nor Lary displayed any weapons during the incident. Three police officers were taken to a nearby hospital “for evaluation” afterward.

In Best’s version of events, several “unmarked police vehicles abruptly boxed in” his van and “unidentified officers drew their weapons immediately and began firing.”

His attorneys claim that Best “raised his hands to surrender,” leading to one of his fingers being “shot off.” The lawyers allege he was then shot “five additional times while sitting in his van.”

“Mr. Best attempted to drive away for the safety of himself and his passenger,” the lawyers wrote.

The attorneys made these arguments as part of an attempt to earn Best’s release on bond in mid-May. They acknowledged his past run-ins with law enforcement — Arlington court records show Best pleaded guilty to a series of drug charges from 1999 through 2008 — but argued he’d been working to turn his life around.

A judge ultimately agreed to his release, and to discontinue his electronic monitoring.

Best’s case will now head to a grand jury, which will determine whether his prosecution will move forward. Police originally charged Best with two counts of the attempted malicious wounding of a law enforcement officer, but he’s now only facing one — Stamos says prosecutors decided to move forward with the pursuit of a single charge against Best “after a review by my office.”

The case was originally set to go to a grand jury in August, but Stamos now hopes to “present the case to the grand jury later this month.” A grand jury is currently set to convene on Sept. 24.

In the meantime, court documents show that both Best’s lawyers and prosecutors are pursuing surveillance video from businesses in the area.

Best’s attorneys most recently won a subpoena for video from the Day’s Inn hotel at 3030 Columbia Pike, arguing that the video recordings of the hotel’s exterior parking lots “contains exculpatory evidence” for Best. The lots are located near the intersection of 11th Street S. and S. Highland Street, roughly a block from where police say the incident took place.

Photo via GoFundMe

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Beyer, Democratic Members of Congress Visit Arlington’s Immigration Court

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and some of his Democratic colleagues believe most children up for a hearing at Arlington’s immigration court are being treated fairly — but they worry that could soon change.

Beyer, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and several other members of Congress sat in for some hearings at the federal immigration court in Crystal City today (Thursday), and broadly came away pleased with what they saw, despite the chaos surrounding the Trump administration’s recent practice of separating children from families at the Mexican border.

Yet Beyer and his fellow Democrats fear what might happen should leadership at the court change. They’ve heard rumors that Jack Weil, a longtime immigration judge at the Department of Justice, could soon start hearing cases in Arlington, and they’re disturbed by his history.

Weil attracted nationwide attention after testifying that he believes children as young as 3 years old can represent themselves in immigration proceedings. Though all of the kids the members of Congress saw Thursday had legal representation, the Democrats expressed disbelief that any judge would decide whether a toddler should be deported without a lawyer present.

“It’s really disturbing, especially because we understand [Weil] is training other judges,” Beyer told reporters. “Look at all the conversations we have about the poor decisions of our 20-year-olds… The thought that even a 12-year-old, 13-year-old can make good decisions in court is silly.”

Rep. Nanette Barragan (D-Calif.) noted that many of the cases the congressional delegation observed involved complex asylum applications, underscoring just how complicated an immigration hearing could be even for adults who speak English. She believes it would be “insane” to ask a child to attempt to navigate the process.

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) felt Arlington’s courthouse generally represented “the best process possible” for kids seeking asylum. But she added that even this court only had Spanish translation services available, when people coming from somewhere like Guatemala could speak one of the country’s other 22 languages instead.

Beyer said Congress should act to provide funding for lawyers for immigrant children, given that that nonprofits stepping up to help can only provide representation for a small fraction of kids making their way through the system. With President Trump tweeting that immigrants should be deported “with no judges or court cases,” the Democrats said they realized the odds were long, but said it would be worth the effort.

“We can do this if we have the will and compassion to do this,” Hoyer said. “This is America. We believe in due process.”

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State Lawmakers Urge Arlington’s Top Prosecutor to Reform Cash Bail System

A group of state lawmakers is urging Arlington’s top prosecutor to reform the county’s cash bail bond system — but Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos thinks they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Each one of the three state senators and four state delegates representing Arlington in Richmond, not to mention two lawmakers from nearby Falls Church, sent a letter on the subject to Stamos last Thursday (June 21).

Echoing efforts by criminal justice reform advocates around the country, the lawmakers argued that requiring people to post a cash bond to earn their freedom contributes to the “disproportionate incarceration of low-income individuals and people of color.” They’d rather see Stamos adopt a system for pretrial release “based more on the severity of the crime and the defendant’s perceived public safety and flight risk, rather than the ability to pay.”

“The current system of cash bail is broken in that it conditions the pretrial release of individuals on the ability to pay, violating the principle of the presumption of innocence that is foundational to our criminal justice system,” the lawmakers wrote.

Stamos says she’s joined some of her colleagues around the state in examining such a policy change, but, fundamentally, she feels this “was a rather silly letter to send me.”

“I think the letter is misguided on a number of levels,” Stamos told ARLnow. “If these members of the General Assembly have a problem with cash bail, they should change the law. It’s perfectly within their power to do so.”

Stamos says prosecutors in her office regularly recommend releasing people on “personal recognizance bonds,” giving them the chance to go free before trial with paying. However, Stamos feels bound by state law, which obligates prosecutors to evaluate if someone charged with a crime “is a flight risk or a threat to the community” when assigning a cash bond.

“I understand the considerations around cash bail, but the countervailing considerations are: who is being held and why are they being held?” Stamos said. “Do they have a prior criminal history? Are they a flight risk? Many of our defendants are from D.C. or Maryland, and we don’t have the resources to be extraditing everyone.”

Yet the lawmakers argue in their letter that other jurisdictions have seen success with such a policy change, noting that prosecutors in Richmond agreed to end cash bail earlier this year.

They point out that most low-income people can’t afford to post a sizable cash bond, which often “translates to weeks of missed income, employment or education before ever having been convicted of a crime.” The lawmakers add that holding so many people before their trials start can be costly for the county — they estimate Arlington pays as much as $182 per day for each person it holds in jail, while other methods of pretrial monitoring can cost as little as $7 each day.

Stamos agrees that there could be “some adjustments we can make” to the process, but she also urged the lawmakers to consider the impact of a policy change for everyone involved in each court proceeding.

“There is a cost as well for witnesses or victims of crime who come to court and the defendant doesn’t show up,” Stamos said.

Most of all, however, Stamos is confused why the lawmakers chose to fire off a letter to her on the issue, rather than working with her a bit more directly.

“Not one of my good colleagues in the General Assembly have one time picked up the phone about this,” Stamos said. “This is news to me that this is a big concern of theirs. Not one has asked me about my position.”

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Morning Notes

Arlington Doctor Sentenced in Poisoning Case — Arlington doctor Sikander Imran was sentenced Friday to three years in prison, with 17 years suspended, for slipping pills into his pregnant girlfriend’s tea, causing her to lose the unborn baby. The now ex-girlfriend pleaded for leniency during the sentencing. [WJLA, New York Daily News]

Miniature Horses Could Be Allowed at Schools — “A new policy defining the rights and responsibility of those – students, staff or visitors – wishing to bring service animals into schools would allow for dogs and miniature horses… schools spokesman Frank Bellavia told the Sun Gazette there are no miniature horses used as service animals in the school system at the moment.” [InsideNova]

Powhatan Skate Park Renovations Approved — The Arlington County Board on Saturday unanimously approved a $1.87 million contract to overhaul the Powhatan Springs Skate Park, the only such park in Arlington. “This well-loved skate park is in need of a makeover to address crumbling concrete conditions,” said Chair Katie Cristol. “The result will be a safer park that both kids and adults in Arlington who are passionate about skateboarding, inline skating and BMX cycling can enjoy for years to come.” [Arlington County]

Residents Protest Amazon at County Board Meeting — Several public speakers at Saturday’s County Board meeting spoke out against the prospect of Amazon’s second headquarters coming to Arlington. They held signs saying “No Amazon” and decried the company’s “brutal working conditions” and “culture of toxic masculinity,” among other things. [Blue Virginia]

Walter Reed Drive Project Green Lit — “The Arlington County Board today approved a $1.8 million contract to A & M Concrete Corporation to improve bicycle and pedestrian connections on a short but critical segment of South Walter Reed Drive, between South Four Mile Run Drive and South Arlington Mill Drive. The project will provide safer connections between two of Arlington’s busiest trails: Washington & Old Dominion and Four Mile Run.” [Arlington County]

Trees Fall During Heavy Rain — A number of trees around the area fell late last week after a record-breaking stretch of heavy rain. Among the trees to topple was a large one that fell on a home on the 2100 block of N. Vernon Street and injured one person. [Twitter, Washington Post]

Lubber Run Farmers Market OKed — “Field to Table, Inc., an Arlington-based non-profit organization, won the County Board’s approval today to open the Lubber Run Farmer’s Market in the parking lot at Barrett Elementary School, 4401 Henderson Road. The market is expected to open in late May.” [Arlington County]

Nearby: Train Derailment in Alexandria — A large contingent of emergency personnel responded to the CSX tracks near Port City Brewing in Alexandria Saturday morning for a freight train that had derailed. About 30 cars came off the tracks but no injuries or hazardous spills were reported. [City of Alexandria, Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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Morning Notes

Vigil for Parkland — Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) was among those to speak at a candlelight vigil last night in Falls Church for the victims of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting. Beyer spoke in favor of stricter gun control measures. [Blue Virginia]

Police Investigate Sound of Gunshots — Arlington County Police investigated a report of shots fired near the intersection of Lee Highway and Glebe Road Friday night. No injuries were reported. [Twitter]

Fmr. Arlington Resident Convicted of Murder — “A jury found a man guilty of multiple counts related to an execution-style shooting that killed three people in a D.C. park in 1991. Benito Valdez, 47, formerly of Arlington, Virginia, was found guilty of first-degree murder while armed.” [WTOP]

Theater’s Pre-Oscar Deal — With the Academy Awards now less than two weeks away, the Regal cinema in Ballston is offering a special deal: a $35 pass to see all nine films nominated for Best Picture. [Patch]

Flyover This Morning — A military flyover is scheduled just after 11 a.m. this morning for a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. [Twitter]

Flickr pool photo by Erinn Shirley

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Taylor Elementary Teacher Pleads Guilty to Marijuana Possession

(Updated at 4:45 p.m.) A suspended Taylor Elementary gym teacher, accused of smoking pot in the school, has pleaded guilty to marijuana possession.

Luke Lloyd of Fairfax, Va. entered the plea Tuesday morning before Arlington General District Court Judge Frances O’Brien. He was sentenced to serve 30 days in jail, with 20 days suspended. He was also ordered to complete 100 hours of community service, pay a $500 fine and complete substance abuse treatment, we’re told.

Lloyd began serving the net ten day sentence on Friday. Most first-time marijuana offenders walk free, but Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos said her office pushed for a stiffer sentence.

“It’s typical for a first time possession of marijuana case to result in a deferred disposition,” Stamos said. “My office, however, argued against such an outcome given the particular facts of this case. Those facts include what appears to have been a rather steady course of use, at times at the school, that we learned about from an anonymous tip to ACPD.”

A second Taylor P.E. teacher nabbed by police, Michael Diaddigo, was also facing possession of marijuana charges, which have since been dropped. Stamos, however, said charges against Diaddigo are expected to be filed soon in Arlington County Circuit Court, which typically handles more serious criminal cases. Stamos declined to elaborate on the charges, since the case is pending.

Lloyd and Diaddigo were both suspended without pay by Arlington Public Schools “pending the outcome of the legal case,” a spokesman said. So far, there is no word on Lloyd’s employment status following the plea. A third Taylor P.E. teacher who was accused of smoking marijuana at the school is currently on administrative leave.

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Neighbors File Lawsuit After Board Approves Lee Highway Child Care Center

Two neighbors of a planned child care center on Lee Highway filed a lawsuit in Arlington Circuit Court this month to try and stop it opening.

The suit, filed by N. McKinley Street residents Francisca Ferro and Cornelius James Coakley who live right behind the property, is against the proposed Little Ambassadors Academy, which is planning to open at 5801 and 5901 Lee Highway. The Arlington County Board approved the plan at its September meeting.

Little Ambassadors, which already operates two child care centers on Lee Highway, is planning to open another facility that would have space for up to 155 children aged 20 months to 5 years old.

The center would be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and have its rear parking lot converted into an outdoor playground, while the loading area next to N. McKinley Street would be modified to have 20 parking spaces.

But in a complaint filed on October 18, the pair allege that the child care facility will negatively affect parking, traffic congestion and noise in the neighborhood, especially for local residents.

“The Special Use Permit materially impacts Petitioners in a way that is different from the impact on to the general public, by greatly increasing traffic and safety concerns in the vicinity of their residences as a result of the expanding the number of cars permitted to traverse and park in the area,” the complaint reads.

The complaint against the County Board and Little Ambassadors rests on four claims.

First, they allege that the Board did not give neighbors sufficient notice that a hearing on the planned child care facility would be taking place.

By law, those nearby must be given at least five days’ written notice, but Ferro and Coakley said they only heard about the hearing on September 14, two days before it was scheduled to be heard by the County Board.

Second, the pair argue that the County Board broke the Dillon Rule, which limits the power of local government by leaving it up to the state government to delegate powers to localities.

Third, the complaintants say that in having the county Department of Human Services decide on the maximum number of children that can attend, and by having the county Zoning Administrator approve the center’s parking plan, the County Board did not have the power to delegate those tasks and should have done it themselves.

Fourth, the pair also dinged the Board for an “unreasonable exercise of legislative function” in approving the center, meaning it should not have been approved, and said the center’s parking plan violates the county’s Zoning Ordinance.

Arlington zoning calls for one parking space on site for each staff member at a child care center, with one parking space also provided for every 10 children that attend. The complaint says the 20 on-site spaces and four off-site spaces do not add up to enough parking.

In May, the Board added a staff member to the Dept. of Community, Planning, Housing and Development to suggest changes to Arlington’s zoning ordinance to help child care centers open.

At the time, Board vice chair Katie Cristol told ARLnow that “our biggest obstacles are within the zoning ordinance in terms of the number of parking spaces required by childcare centers or the amount of indoor vs. outdoor space.”

No hearing date has yet been set for the case.

Photos No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 via Google Maps

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Caffe Aficionado Credit Card Fraud Suspect Pleads Guilty

A co-owner of the former Caffe Aficionado in Rosslyn has pleaded guilty to charges connected to what prosecutors said was a multi-year credit card fraud scheme.

Clark Donat is scheduled to be sentenced next month after pleading guilty in June to a long list of charges: credit card fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering, racketeering, conspiracy to commit racketeering, identity theft, credit card forgery, credit card theft, conspiracy to commit credit card theft and conspiracy to commit identity theft.

His former business partner in the cafe, Adiam Berhane, is scheduled to face a jury trial starting Jan. 30, 2018.

According to prosecutors, Donat and Berhane started using the cafe’s point-of-sale system to fraudulently charge gift cards — purchased with stolen credit cards — in June of 2013, before the cafe even opened. The stolen credit card information was bought off the “dark web” and used to manufacture fake credit cards, which were then used to buy gift cards and other items, prosecutors say.

In all, according to prosecutors, the cafe recorded about $1 million in revenue between 2013 and the police raid in October 2016, $450,000 of which was attributable to “gift cards almost entirely purchased with stolen credit card information.”

Counterfeit cards were also used to buy goods at various stores, including TJ Maxx and REI, which were then returned and credited to one of the defendant’s legitimate credit cards, prosecutors allege. A few days before the raid, prosecutors say, the pair used a stolen credit card to pay for a $1,200 large group brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown.

Before the alleged fraud was revealed, Caffe Aficionado garnered rave reviews for its hand-crafted coffee and espresso drinks. A local food critic even called it “one of the finest coffee shops in the area.”

“We’re really happy with it,” Berhane said of the positive reviews. “I think it’s all about service. Follow the Golden Rule, it’s not that hard.”

Donat is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 17 in Arlington Circuit Court.

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Public Defenders Object to New County Policy for First-Time Marijuana Offenders

Marijuana(Updated at 1:02 p.m.) A new Arlington General District Court policy to skip appointing a lawyer for some first-time marijuana offenders has local public defenders speaking out.

Under the new policy, which took effect March 1, people caught with a small amount marijuana would not be appointed a lawyer if they have no criminal record and it’s their first pot possession offense.

According to a memo that court officials sent to the Arlington County Bar Association last month, some people caught with pot for the first time can enter a guilty plea and have the charge dismissed as long as they agree to meet “certain conditions” set by the court.

Offenders who qualify would have two weeks from arraignment to consult with an attorney if they choose, but wouldn’t be appointed one.

Though the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says “in all criminal prosecutions the accused… shall have assistance of counsel for his defense,” the Supreme Court ruled in a 1979 decision that the right to counsel only applies when a defendant faces imprisonment.

In this case, because the court is waiving jail time for those offenders, it does not legally need to appoint them counsel. Many other courts throughout the U.S. have also similarly waived imprisonment for first-time marijuana offenders.

Arlington’s Office of the Public Defender is protesting the policy on the grounds that it could unfairly affect people who can’t afford lawyers if they want them.

The office made its case in a rebuttal letter shared with ARLnow.com.

“While no doubt unintended, Arlington’s new policy will send us down a slippery slope towards the same scenario for poor people: no lawyers for indigent persons charged with personal-use marijuana possession cases where the court or prosecutor exclude jail time as a sentencing option,” the letter reads.

Matthew Foley, the office’s chief public defender, added that the new policy would “disproportionately affect minorities and immigrants” and possibly deprive them of their due process.

Foley argued that the policy could mislead people into thinking the charges would be expunged from their record, which they may not be. For citizens, he said, the consequences of a criminal record might include loss of educational opportunities, jobs, public benefits, student loans, and the ability to legally drive a car. For non-citizens, the consequences of such a record could mean deportation, the inability to become a citizen or re-enter the country.

“Liberty is not just about jail time,” he told ARLnow.com. “It’s about permanent criminal records, which affect you your entire life.”

Foley continued in the letter:

Assuming a typical indigent defendant can even get a free consultation with a private lawyer, how does that person parlay the attorney’s advice into getting due process? If the consulted lawyer advises that the police stop or search were unlawful, what will the indigent defendant without an appointed attorney be able to do with this advice? What if the person charged is innocent? How does the mere advice of the attorney lead to a just result? If the attorney tells the accused person that the case is weak, but he may be deported if he is found guilty, how does that help? The answer is clear: it will help no more than a doctor advising an uninsured, cash-strapped patient how to remove his tonsils, set a broken leg or cure his cancer.

But Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos disputed Foley’s argument and called his rhetoric “overheated.”

“The idea that somehow this is collusion between my office and the judges to deny people due process is offensive,” Stamos said. “Nobody is trying to ease out the public defender.”

She continued, “I don’t agree that what’s going to happen as a result of this change is that people’s rights are going to be trampled on a daily basis in the courts of Arlington County. That’s not accurate. It’s unfair, it’s untrue, and it’s overheated.”

Stamos argued that cases where first-time marijuana offenders are found innocent are exceedingly rare. Furthermore, Arlington is simply coming into line with the numerous other jurisdictions who have already enacted such policies without much protest.

“The vast majority of these cases, if not all of them, result in either a conviction or a plea of guilty with the disposition that allows them not to have a criminal record,” she said. “If you think that the law should be that, even if your liberty interest is not at stake, that the government should pay for your lawyer, then you need to change the law.”

(For the record, Foley said he supports overturning the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision.)

Still, the policy is unlikely to change any time soon, at least without a test case, Foley said. And Stamos said the court is unlikely to budge on its own.

“I just don’t agree with Matt,” she said. “And the law does not support his position.”

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